Mental illnesses in early life linked to faster aging and worse health in later years

People with mental disorders as young adults tend to show signs of accelerated aging in middle age and a higher risk of developing other diseases and dying earlier, according to a pair of related studies, supported in part by the NIA. The results appeared on January 13th JAMA Network is open and February 17 in Gamma Psychiatry, suggests that improving individuals’ mental health can enhance their overall health and extend their lives. The studies involved were led by researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan.

Increasing evidence suggests that biological aging is best understood as a network of genetic and environmental factors interacting. As we age, the body’s repair mechanisms decline, contributing to multiple organ dysfunction and diseases more common in late life, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and brain diseases, such as dementia. But little is known about how early life experiences affect the onset of the disease many years later.

In the two new studies, researchers went on to note that people with poor mental health when they were young are more likely to develop age-related diseases when they are older. To better characterize the nature of this association, they analyzed health and mortality data from large numbers of individuals in New Zealand that had been collected over decades.

to me JAMA Network is open In the study, researchers examined data on more than two million New Zealanders aged 10 to 60 over the subsequent 30 years, or until death. Their analysis showed that people who were admitted to hospitals with mental health problems — including substance abuse, psychosis, mood, and behavioral disturbances — tended to develop other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease at a younger age, and to die. Earlier – than those who did not have psychological problems early in life. People with a history of mental illness were more likely to have chronic health conditions and to be hospitalized more often and for longer periods. These patterns are seen in both men and women, and across a lifetime.

In the study published in Gamma PsychiatryResearchers have explored the idea that accelerated biological aging may lead to early onset of other health conditions in people who have previously had mental health problems. They used data from the Dunedin Study, which monitored the health of about 1,000 people in New Zealand from ages 3 to 45.

The results showed that in middle age, people with a history of mental health problems ageed faster, as measured by a combination of biomarkers and assessments of sensory, motor and cognitive function. The association was significant even after the researchers controlled for other factors that can speed up the aging process such as smoking, being overweight, low socioeconomic status, having a pre-existing health condition, or a history of poor childhood health or abuse.

Together, the findings suggest that treating mental disorders in young people not only improves their well-being but may also prevent health problems from developing later on. The findings also offer the possibility that more research into how adverse psychological states speed up the aging process could lead to strategies to slow its progression, possibly enabling people to stay healthy for longer.

This research was supported in part by NIA grants R01AG032282, R01AG049789, P30AG028716, and P30AG034424.


Richmond-Rackerd LS, et al. Longitudinal association of mental disorders with physical illness and mortality among 2.3 million New Zealand citizens. JAMA Network is open. 2021; 4 (1): e2033448. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.33448

Wertz, J., et al. Association of psychopathological history with accelerated aging in middle age. Gamma Psychiatry. 2021 Feb 17; e204626. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.4626.001

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